Category Archives: censorship

Censorship as language

Sorry for the delay.  I recently finished a little foray into a series of censorship events (let’s just go with that for a term) in 1645-6.  I will try to sum up.

To set the scene, parliament, the Scots, and the king are trying to come to some kind of peace.  Unfortunately, everybody wants something different, and all are keen to justify their behavior and demands to the larger public.  In a series of pamphlets, the Scots Commissioners tried to make their case.  For the most part, these pamphlets were made up of the Scots Commissioners’ own papers.  Parliament responded by making gestures through censorship. When it finally succeeded in censoring an entire Scot pamphlet, it appeased the Commissioners by making another gesture.

Parliament had a difficult time trying to silence the Commissioners.  On one occasion, it made an inquiry into an offending pamphlet clearly published with the Commissioners’ consent, only to let the matter drop.  Without punishing anyone, parliament was trying to make its displeasure clear.

On another occasion, parliament ordered the preface and introduction to a Scot pamphlet burnt, condemning David Buchanan, a friend of the Commissioners and author of the preface as well as another condemned pamphlet.  Buchanan was relatively safe to attack, but the Scots managed to smuggle him out of England in time anyway.  The pamphlet also contained 3 of the Scots’ papers, which were left unscathed by the flames.  Parliament managed to avoid an open conflict with the Scots by not burning their papers, but successfully conveyed its displeasure with the pamphlet.  As well, parliament seems to have intentionally avoided carrying out a further inquiry into the authorship of the introduction after it discovered that it was likely authored by either the Commissioners’ secretary or the earl of Lauderdale.  Parliament thus sidestepped another complication by avoiding knowingly condemning a work by the Commissioners themselves.  This was certainly a more threatening gesture, but fell far short of censoring the Scots.

In one final move, parliament managed to block the publication of some of the earl of Loudoun’s speeches in a conference with parliament.  The Scots were offended and made a few attempts to retrieve the seized pamphlets.  Parliament could not return the pamphlets, but not wishing to force a breach with the Scots, appear to have tried to mollify them with a further act of censorship.  This time, it brought in Henry Walker for publishing a pamphlet that had particularly offended the Scots.  Walker claimed that he had received Mabbott’s permission for publication, and parliament ordered him to bring in proof.  As far as I can tell, that is where the matter ended.  Unable to satisfy the Scots’ demand for the return of their papers, parliament made another gesture, this time toward censoring an offender against the Scots, again without punishing anyone.

There is certainly a language to all of this.  I find it useful to remember that censorship was a tool in the early modern government’s toolbox which could be used for many purposes.  Here, it was a soft sort of diplomacy.  It also carried some important ramifications for some of the publishers, printers, and authors involved, their allegiances, and Mabbott, but I think that is a story for another time.

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Filed under censorship, Henry Walker, Long Parliament, Mabbott, Print Culture, Samuel Pecke

Skippon, Bethan, Mabbott, and the Provost Marshall

I will have something up on Tolmie soon, but first I thought I would discuss a little problem I have finally solved.  On Aug. 31, 1648, Mabbott requested further (but unrecorded) powers for suppressing illegal printing.  Most sources report that Parliament was happy with his suggestions, and the matter was promptly referred to a committee.  On Sept. 13, the Commons, following a report from Derby House, appointed Capt. Francis Bethan as Provost Marshall with the power, among others, to suppress pamphlets.  Historians have assumed that Bethan was given the powers that Mabbott had requested for himself.  The insinuation is that this was a repudiation of Mabbott as licenser.  This interpretation has never set entirely well with me.

For starters, nowhere do we have any indication that Bethan was granted the powers that Mabbott had requested.  The only suggestion that the two were connected in that way comes from Mercurius Elencticus, a royalist newsbook, which reported that Mabbott, “upon second Thoughts and the secret Checks and Twitches his Conscience gave him, he declined the Imployment,” and thus it was granted to Bethan.  J. B. Williams (Muddiman) bought this line in toto.  As nearly as I can tell, this is the only source that puts Mabbott’s request and Bethan’s appointment together, but Elencticus‘s specious claim lived on through Williams and into the modern historiography.  Fortunately, no one else that I have seen seems to believe that Mabbott’s conscience kept him from taking the job.

In case you are wondering why you’ve never heard of Bethan before, it would probably be because he came out of nowhere.  I have no idea who he is, and apparently neither did the newsbook editors and parliamentary clerks who gave several different versions of his name: Bethen, Bethan, Betham, Bethum, Bethel…  I suppose I could understand the first four, but Bethel?  That one was from Pragmaticus.

There is good reason that most contemporaries did not comment on the connection between Mabbott’s proposals and Bethan’s appointment.  Suppressing pamphlets was one of the smaller aspects of Bethan’s commission.  The order from the Commons on Sept. 13, following the report of Richard Knightley from the Derby House committee, read:

Ordered, That Francis Bethan have a Commission granted unto him to be Provost Marshal, for Apprehension of such as are within Twenty Miles of London, without the Liberties of the City, against the Ordinances of Parliament; and of other dangerous Persons that have listed, or are listing themselves: And that the said Provost Marshal have Power to apprehend and surprise all such Person or Persons as sell, sing, or publish, Ballads or Books, scandalous to the Parliament, or their Proceedings; and to suppress Playhouses, and apprehend the Players; and keep the said Persons apprehended in Custody; and carry them to the Committees of the Militias of the several Counties and Places where they shall be apprehended; to take Course with them, according to Ordinance of Parliament: The said Power to continue for Three Months.

As you can see, there isn’t really any indication that he was being granted whatever powers it was that Mabbott had requested.  Moreover, according to the original report in the CSPD from Derby House on Aug. 7, Bethan was originally only going to be recommended for the former part of the commission, rounding up malignants around London.  The responsibility for plays, ballads, and books was added at some later date.  Bethan’s ultimate appointment as Provost Marshall on Sept. 13 had clearly been intended, originally, for a separate purpose, beyond the suppression of pamphlets.  One also has to wonder about the delay from Derby House’s decision on Aug. 7 and its report on Sept. 13 (and the Lords’ concurrence on the 23rd).

I would argue that, rather than a repudiation of Mabbott, Bethan’s commission was an attempt to buttress Independent control in the metropolis.  The explanation lies in Skippon and the City.

Major-General Skippon had been in charge of the security of London and the surrounding areas.  While it would at first seem that Bethan’s duties would overlap with Skippon’s and thus undermine him, Skippon would never have agreed to his appointment were that the likely outcome.  Skippon was on the Derby House Committee, which was no longer under Presbyterian control, and was present on the day that the committee decided on its recommendation.

Skippon had also been called on to help suppress suppress stages and plays in Middlesex alongside the Committee of the militia of Westminster (CJ, July 26, 1648).  Considering the seemingly ad hoc nature of Bethan’s commission, it appears that Bethan was being enrolled to help Skippon in performing his various duties.  Defense of London (and its morals, evidently) required more than one man, especially when City government had so decisively turned away from him.

In the same way, Bethan was also to aid Mabbott, who was clearly incapable of halting unlicensed publication and was indeed asking for further powers.  While this could have been an attempt to undermine Mabbott, Skippon’s alliance with the army would have made him and Mabbott allies.  It is more likely that this was an attempt to strengthen Independent authority around an increasingly royalist London.

The fact that Derby House did not convey its request until Sept. 13, two weeks after the successful conclusion of the siege of Colchester, indicates that the move was not solely concerned with royalist invasion.  Rather, it would likely have been a result of the increasingly hostile mood in the capital (partly a result of the influx of royalists leaving Colchester).  Bethan’s official charge as Provost Marshall was “for the Safeguard of the Parliament.”  This is perhaps why the Commons and Lords agreed to the recommendation, but were very slow to go about it.  The Lords likely held out hope that Bethan would be more congenial, as their very next order of business after confirming Bethan was to order an inquiry into the authorship of the Moderate.  It is almost enough to make wonder if Bethan was chosen expressly because he was a nobody; it was not immediately obvious for whom he would be working.

There is certainly some guesswork in the story so far, but I think that it is plain enough that Bethan’s appointment was part of something much larger than Gilbert Mabbott (who would have imagined such a thing?).  Because of Skippon’s seat at Derby House, I have assumed that Bethan’s appointment had his blessing.  Parliament’s own fears about insurrection rather than invasion drove them to ultimately accept Bethan as Provost Marshall.  I argue that the move was meant to give support to both Skippon and Mabbott in keeping London and its presses in line.

Why devote this much space to something which no one has ever really cared enough to examine before?  Well, for my own purposes, it is useful for further explaining Mabbott’s career.  More generally, it is a reminder to those of us who have become so specialized in certain brands of history (print culture, in my case) that we need to remember to consider that print was only one front in a larger political and military battle.  Having only examined Bethan’s appointment in a print context, it certainly looked like an affront to Mabbott, but by looking at the larger political context, it was clear that it was part of an Independent push to control the capital.  The appointment of Bethan as Provost Marshall ultimately did very little to effect the outcome of the conflict, but it is a useful example of Independent strategy as well as of one of the ephemeral, omnipresent, miniature political battles that made up the parliamentary war effort.

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Mabbott the Visitor

I’ve finally rebegun my work on collecting licensing statistics for Mabbott’s second term of office.  There are some quirks.  For instance, in Oct. 1647 there is a pamphlet that would appear to be royalist to which Mabbott gave his imprimatur.  The pamphlet contains an argument against allowing parliament to send visitor to Oxford University.  The author asserts that only the king has the right to conduct a visitation.  Considering Oxford’s previous position as royalist capital, as well as its later infiltration by a swarm of parliamentarian intellectuals, it is difficult to understand why Mabbott would license such a polemic.

There is no imprimatur on the actual work.  In the Stationers’ Register, the pamphlet was entered under the hands of Mabbott and [George] Latham.  Latham was a bookseller and would be a master of the Stationers’ Company by 1650 (I haven’t checked, but I assume he was serving as an Under or Upper Warden of the Stationers’ Company at the time, considering that he would be a master in three years time.  Wardens often served as the Company’s own licensers).  As Cyndia Clegg reminds us, entry into the Stationers’ Register does not necessarily mean the granting of a license.  However, I would assume that if the work was entered specifically under a licenser’s hand, that would imply a license.

I can think of five possible explanations.  One: Mabbott did not know what he was licensing.  I find this explanation unlikely.  Two: Mabbott was secretly a royalist sympathizer.  I find this explanation even more unlikely.  Three: he was bribed.  Possible, but one would expect that his regular pay as the army’s agent as well as licensing fees, plus a number of other “perks” that I’ve been finding, would have been enough to keep him loyal.  Four: as reputed, he did believe in a free press.  I do  not have space to discuss this here, but I have elsewhere concluded that this was not the case.  Five: he intentionally saw it published in order to make the author’s position appear foolish.  The text is rather vitriolic, and though I am not yet positive, this fifth explanation is the most likely.  Certainly, with Charles in the army’s custody, the argument that only the king could carry out a visitation was somewhat absurd.

What does this tell us about Mabbott’s licensing?  He at least occasionally engaged in games similar to those of the Laudians in the 1620s and 30s (at least as reconstructed by Anthony Milton).  By publishing an unrealistic royalist argument, he sought to marginalize royalism as a whole.  Or perhaps more simply, if that was the case against an Oxford visitation, airing it could only serve to weaken resistance.  Mabbott has shown other signs of such sophistication, including publishing petitions against free quarter with a related petition by Fairfax to parliament for regular pay, thus placing the blame for free quarter squarely on parliament’s shoulders.  I will have to leave off the full history of Mabbott’s licensing history for my dissertation, but this is what I have been thinking about lately, so I thought others might find it interesting.

On another front, I may have finally solved the mystery of Mabbott’s alternating letter forms.  I noticed in reading his newsletters that while his hand was generally consistent, a few letter forms, particular “t”s, would vary from newsletter to newsletter.  I am currently in the middle of reading Harold Love’s Scribal Publication in Early Modern England, and yesterday I noted a brief mention that personal secretaries might be expected to be able to mimic their master’s italic hand.  It is something I should have thought of earlier, but the explanation for the varying letter forms is as simple as different writers, all trying to write like Mabbott, with varying degrees of success.  I guess I was so confused because the hand was quite consistent besides a handful of letters, but I think that solves that problem.  It also may or may not suggest something about the scope of Mabbott’s newswriting enterprise beyond his currently known recipients, but that is a question for a different day.

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Cyndia Clegg

I recently finished reading Cyndia Clegg’s Press Censorship in Jacobean England (2001). It took me a while, not because of the length (it’s only about 230 pages), but because of a needed holiday break. I hope everybody’s went well. I have been busy killing locust people and playing Rock Band 2. I highly recommend both.

I would also recommend the book. Although there are some oddities with how she deals with the historiography for the period (for instance, while both excellent historians to consult, she seems to rely far too heavily on Kenneth Fincham and Peter Lake), the books’ strengths are in how Clegg deals with meanings at recognizing the lack of any kind of monolithic censorship. She strongly makes the point that “in Jacobean England efforts to control the press and to suppress its products mark the points of difference—the ruptures—in the Church, state, and society” (15). It was the battleground for factional struggles as well as a place where different authorities overlapped.

She draws a moderate course between Christopher Hill and Sheila Lambert as to the strength and purpose of censorship. While she does not find it the powerful, oppressive, state-driven force of Hill, neither is it the weak, economically-driven instrument of Lambert. It was not capable of squashing all that the crown desired, nor did the crown try to suppress everything it had reason to, but James did try to expand the state’s control of the press (for instance, by hiring Francis Cottington as licenser).

Clegg’s real strength is her dissection of the meanings of different kinds of censorship. James would sometimes engage in public book burnings, but also in unannounced, “private” ones. Rarely did he think he could remove all copies of something from circulation, though when he tried, he always failed. Rather, the purpose of a public, announced burning was to voice displeasure, “to attract attention to how distant their ideas were from his own” (89). If the books affronted him personally, they were often censored privately, so as to avoid drawing further attention to them.

Clegg has some interesting examples. I think my favorite was James’s suppression of Ralegh’s The History of the World. Poor Ralegh expected the king to like it, but because Edward Peacham voiced a similar concept of divine retribution for kingly infirmities in “Balaam’s Asse” as voiced in Ralegh’s History, James suppressed the History out of fear for his own life. The example was part of Clegg’s discussion of private suppressions, and it shows well how James’s personal disposition could act itself out in censorship.

One of Clegg’s chapters discusses the confrontation between the Civil and Common Law. Here she claims to argue against both Whigs and revisionists, finding more conflict than revisionists and less ideological conflict than Whigs. I think her idea of revisionism might be a bit too caricatured here, but she does show that some of the more famous cases of civil and common law disputes were more personal than anything else. James often acted in such disputes to protect his own authority, in both common law and civil law courts.

The fifth chapter touches on printing after the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War. In sum, James did try to control print ephemera in the period, but was only moderately successful. It was not Thomas Cogswell’s “evil time” nor was it just the Stationers’ Company trying to protect itself, as in Lambert. Clegg discusses James’s attempt to limit the subject matter of sermons and the appointing of Francis Cottington. Both were attempts to limit discussion of the Spanish Match. However, neither of these was more than moderately successful. Some preachers did self-censor, and Cottington did manage to control some of the presses, but many preachers and printers continued to openly criticize James’s foreign policy. Here I think she may have been unfair to Cogswell. Certainly these moves show James’s increasing interest in controlling the presses, which would certainly be frightening to many potential authors and printers, and probably encouraged more self-censorship than Clegg gives credit. Still, her discussion is quite reasonable and convincing.

Her final chapter moves on to the rise of Arminianism. She distinguishes between people of the word and people of silence, meaning Calvinists and Arminians, respectively. Part of being Arminian in England was theological silence. For Clegg, “the issue here may not be so much whether or not censorship under Charles I was or was not the repressive system Christopher Hill discovered but that the discursive practices of the Laudians and the Calvinists-cum-Puritans so diametrically opposed each other that the people of the word and the people of silence could never become reconciled” (223). This certainly places Charles’s ban on discussing predestination into a different light. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I’m not sure it really fits the evidence. Sounds like I need to do some more reading on Arminianism. I think I’ve got a biography of Laud sitting around somewhere. Any recommendations?

I can see now that I haven’t even mentioned her discussion of the various laws and bodies that carried about the censorship. But I’m tired now. Overall, I enjoyed the book, and I appreciated the examples that she used, and I think it qualifies as a “must-read” for anyone working on print culture in the seventeenth century.

Before I finish, I will strongly recommend Anthony Milton’s “Licensing, Censorship, and Religious Orthodoxy in Early Stuart England” (1998). I might review it later. I read it a while ago and really enjoyed it. Clegg discusses it quite extensively in her final chapter, and the article really helps to illustrate both one of the more clever uses of censorship as well as the overlaps in authority inherent in early modern societies.

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